Pushing the Boundaries of Personal Privacy

 Posted by on 17 March 2010 at 7:00 am  Culture, Personal
Mar 172010

Declan McCullagh recently wrote a fairly interesting article on why no one cares about privacy anymore. He writes:

My hunch is that Google Buzz will continue to grow because, after nearly a decade of social-networking experiences (its great-granddaddy, Friendster, started in early 2002), Internet users have grown accustomed to informational exhibitionism. The default setting for a Buzz message is public, and Buzz-ers using mobile phones are prompted to disclose their locations.

Norms are changing, with confidentiality giving way to openness. Participating in YouTube, Loopt, FriendFeed, Flickr, and other elements of modern digital society means giving up some privacy, yet millions of people are willing to make that trade-off every day. Of people with an online profile, nearly 40 percent have disabled privacy settings so anyone may view it, according to a Pew Internet survey released a year ago. The percentage is probably higher today.

Then he discusses some of the benefits of more sharing online:

“As a social good,” says Richard Posner, the federal judge and iconoclastic conservative, “I think privacy is greatly overrated because privacy basically means concealment. People conceal things in order to fool other people about them. They want to appear healthier than they are, smarter, more honest and so forth.” That isn’t a defense of snooping as much as a warning of the flip side of privacy–concealing facts that are discreditable, including those that other people have a legitimate reason for knowing.

The truth about privacy is counter-intuitive: less of it can lead to a more virtuous society. Markets function more efficiently when it’s cheap to identify and deliver the right product to the right person at the right time. Behavioral targeting allows you to see relevant, interesting Web ads instead of irrelevant, annoying ones. The ability to identify customers unlikely to pay their bills lets stores offer better deals to those people who will.

Anyone who’s spent a moment reading comments on blogs or news articles knows that encouraging participants to keep their identities private generates vitriol or worse. Thoughtful discussions tend to arise when identities are public. Without that, as Adam Smith wrote about an anonymous man in a large city in The Wealth of Nations, he is likely to “abandon himself to every low profligacy and vice.”

I think that’s right, in general. (Obviously, some people can and do behave well whether anonymous or not.)

Personally, I’ve always been fairly open with the world about how I live my life. I don’t have anything shameful to hide, not even when I make serious mistakes. More positively, I can filter people by being more open about myself. I’ve got strong values and a strong personality. People can see that in my doings online. Those who like it will be drawn to me, and those who don’t will be repulsed. That’s good!

Plus, when people are open about their values and interests online, they need not awkwardly grope for some common interests to discuss when they meet for the first time in person. Instead, they’re meeting a person they already know. (Sometimes people know tons about me but I know nothing about them. That can be strange, although even that’s gotten easier over time. I’m not entirely sure why.)

As part of my online openness strategy, I refuse to use pseudonyms, handles, or otherwise conceal my identity online: I’m always completely myself. Diana Hsieh is the only person that I ever want to be. (I love being me!) Notably, I don’t think it’s wrong to use a pseudonym: a person might want to separate his work life from his other pursuits, for example. Yet I think that a person should use just one pseudonym in all relevant forums, and that pseudonym should be an open secret among his friends. Otherwise, a person is likely concealing his identity to evade responsibility for what he’s doing and saying.

Personally, I’ve definitely noticed a shift in my own “privacy settings” in the past few months. I’ve abandoned any and all sense of my own personal privacy, except with regards to my sex life. Yes, that will remain private.

I wasn’t pushed into that change that by social media, although social media definitely helps me share personal stuff with greater ease. More than anything else, I think, my decision to blog on what I eat over the past two years, then to report on the nitty-gritty details of my hypothyroidism has affected me. Even answering some of the crazy questions on FormSpring has pushed my privacy boundaries. (Yes, I’m going to start posting the more substantial Q&As here on NoodleFood soon.)

I’m now committed — in principle, I’d say — to extreme openness about my life. That still feels a bit strange to me, but I like it.

What’s your online privacy strategy? (I’m definitely going to get a skewed sample in the comments!)

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